In both “La Belle Dame” by John Keats and “The Lady of Shalott” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, female leads take action to pursue and provide pleasure for themselves in the form of a male companion. This directly contrasts the passive role of middle class women during the Victorian era, where despite having opportunities to receive education and social skills, these were limited to whatever men found pleasing. In other words, women were expected to “doll themselves up” and then wait for a suitor to notice. Yet in the aforementioned poems, the Dame and the Lady decide to skip this middle step and pursue a man on their own. Both cases lead to devastation, yet in different ways.
The secondary narrator of “La Belle Dame” is a knight destroyed by the Dame. He was used by her for her enjoyment and now wanders the lake in a dazed lost state. It is made clear by the Knight’s dream of “…pale kings and princes too, pale warriors…” (lines 35-36) that he is not the only victim of the Dame. Clearly this is a woman well practiced in pursuing her interests, particularly those of sexual nature.
The tale of the Lady from mythical land of Shalott runs along a similar theme, but with a significantly different end. In the poem, the Lady consistently tends to her weaving; a notably common domestic trade during the era of Sir Arthur (when the poem takes place) and the Victorian Era (when the work was written). When the Lady sees handsome Sir Arthur in her mirror, she does not prune herself to try and lure him, but rather turns from the mirror and gazes upon him directly. If the mirror can be taken to provide for the “lens” of a father or older brother a Victorian woman would have to “look through” to really have better opportunities in life, then here we see the Lady turn a literal 180 degrees from this form of containment. Because normally a single woman would have only the opportunities given to her by her closest male relative, this scene demonstrates the Lady’s moment of retracting from the crutch of masculine dominance over a women’s freedoms in a relationship / marriage. Unfortunately, the tale ends with the Lady floating along a frozen river “till her blood was frozen slowly” (line 147) all alone, with not even family to see her off.
Both poems, notably written by men, seem to be cautionary tales about giving women too much freedom – at some point they may seize it for themselves and only devastation will occur. This is clearly no greater tragedy for the patriarchy of the Victorian Era.